… but I’d like to see more posts on the vagaries of language and how they get your goat.
I aim to please.
The ONE thing that frustrates me more about language than anything else is Semantic Erosion. Semantic Erosion (here, not when web developers talk about it), is when a word or phrase loses meaning, whether it be levels of nuance, or the entire meaning of the word. Probably the most famous example of this in our current language is the Long Dead and Well Beaten Horse that is literally. If you’re reading this site, odds are you’re familiar with that word’s journey from the useful meaning of “according to a precise reading; lacking in exaggeration or distortion” to “really“.
Let it never be said that I am opposed to Semantic Drift, where-in a word takes on a new meaning. The issue here is not that a word means something else, but that language has lost a meaning or range of meaning, and with it, a range of expression. On the contrary, when language gains meaning, I’m quite glad. Unanimous, for example, is a lovely word. The original meaning of un (not; without) animous (acrimony) is fine, but covered by other words, such as peaceful or placid. But the new meaning, by agreement of all, adds NEW meaning to our language, broadening our ability to express ourselves.
The majority of the time, Semantic Erosion takes place due to consistent misuse of a word. The more frustrating form to my mind is when a word simply becomes tainted by the intensity of the arguments they are involved in. This poisons many of the words that related to issues like race, or religion, which in turn makes it more difficult to have an informed and rational conversation about them without defaulting to either rhetoric or byzantine-word-labyrinths. Take prejudice. Once again, we’ll look to a Latin root to get pre (before; preceeding) and judice(judgement; determination). The word we get is perfectly reasonable. I can look at a new model of car, one that looks unlike other cars, and using my prejudice, I can determine that it is probably a car. I don’t need to get in and drive it, or have it explained. The four wheels and a body are enough for me to make a judgment before having checked it out in detail. We do this all day long. A flower you’ve seen is a flower. You don’t need to check with a botanist. People walking around in Paris probably speak French, there’s no need to quiz them. The issue, obviously, is when two factors come into play
- The prejudice is unfounded.
- The prejudice is assumed to be true despite new evidence.
Of course, once we introduce these factors, we’ve shifted from prejudice to bigotry. This is especially unfortunate given that we’ve eroded the meaning of prejudice so that it has none of the broadness or nuance it should have, and have turned it into little more than a synonym for bigotry. There is nothing inherently wrong with reasonable pre-judgment, and it’s unfortunate that the word we have for it has been rendered unusable.
There are examples of this strewn across language, and they are especially dense in the regions of highly charged intercourse. Words with eroded meaning include atheist, agnostic, liberal, conservative, progressive, racist, feminist, Christian, livid and debatable.
So there you have it. I’m far from a strict linguistic traditionalist. Shifts in meaning, and filling semantic gaps are great, and I wholly support them. It just gets me down when there’s a perfectly good word for something, but for whatever reason, it’s unusable. I don’t mind change, I just regret change for the worse.